American Religion Online

Kyle Roberts of Loyola’s Jesuit Libraries Project (left)

This morning (Sunday) I had the privilege to chair and offer a comment on an American Society of Church History session entitled “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History.” Below is a rough version of what I said:

Good morning.  I am John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College outside of Harrisburg, PA.

Conversations about the changes digital technology has brought to the study of church history often emphasize the Web’s most dramatic transformations. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the decline of academic publishing, and the rise of virtual museums dominate the debate. These developments are, of course, real, and they are changing the study of religion. But to focus only on such contested issues overlooks other valuable ways that digital applications and methodologies have changed the work we do as scholars, educators, and curators. The Web may be transforming higher education and scholarly communication, but it is also revolutionizing how we research, teach, and interpret American religious history.

This panel proposes to bring together three scholars of religion to talk about their innovative digital projects.  I think these projects reveal the opportunities as well as the challenges of the digital turn. The panelists have experience in both academic and other public history institutions. Their projects address a range of audiences, from scholars to students to the general public.  And they utilize a variety of different digital applications — databases, maps, and virtual library systems — to show how traditional source material can be collected, analyzed, and shared in dynamic and new ways.

NOTE:  The above two paragraphs were written by the conference organizers–JF

This panel seeks to be as practical as it is theoretical. Each presenter will briefly describe their project, share the process by which they were created, and reflect upon their implications for the future work of religious historians.  In the spirit of collaboration that defines digital and public history, we hope to leave plenty of time for questions and conversation.

Our first presenter is Erin Bartram:

Erin is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Connecticut. Inspired by work on cultural and physical borderlands, her dissertation, “Jane Minot Sedgwick II and the World of American Catholic Converts, 1820-1890,” examines the role of friendship in the religious choices and lives of elite nineteenth-century American women. She is writing the dissertation under Richard Brown.  But most importantly for our session this morning, she is co-founder and co-investigator (along with Lincoln Mullen) of the collaborative American Converts Database website.  You can connect with her on Twitter @erin_bartram

Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Public History and New Media in the History Department at Loyola University. He teaches courses on public history, digital humanities, religion, and North America and the Atlantic World in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. As a postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary, University of London from 2009-2011, he worked with a team of researchers, archivists, and technical advisors to create Dissenting Academies Online: Virtual Library System, an innovative reconstruction of the holdings and borrowings of the leading English dissenting academies. He is the Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project. His first monograph, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago) is forthcoming.  Twitter @kylebroberts

Christopher D. Cantwell is an Assistant Professor of Public History and Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Before joining UMKC, Cantwell was the Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago where he administered a number of scholarly programs and curated several digital exhibits. His work has appeared in Fides et Historia, International Labor and Working-Class History, and he is currently co-editing a collection of essays titled Between the Pew and the Picket Line: Working-Class Christianities of the Industrial Age (University of Illinois Press, 2015). He was co-director of a three-year NEH Bridging Cultures grant on integrating the study of America’ religious diversity into humanities classroom, and has led numerous seminars on labor, religion, and the urban landscape. His digital projects include Pullman: Labor, Race, and the Urban Landscape in a CompanyTown (2011), Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America (2013), The Civil War in Letters: A Newberry Transcription Project (2013), and the forthcoming Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity, 1893 (2014). Twitter: @cdc29

Here are the projects that were discussed in this session:

Erin Bartram: The American Converts Database
Kyle Roberts: The Jesuit Libraries Project and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project
Christopher Cantwell: Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity, 1893


A few introductory remarks:

I am not part of the DH community. I have never been to a THAT Camp. And I do not know how to code.

I have used digital tools in my courses.  Last Spring I taught a course on Pennsylvania History. Students were asked to use Omeka to construct online exhibits related to the history of the greater Harrisburg area

As chair of the Messiah College History Department I have been a strong advocate, even a cheerleader, for digital history.  I led the reform of the department’s new public history concentration, which contains digital history coursework.  I have also been an advocate for Digital Harrisburg–an online digital project housed at Messiah College.  Digital Harrisburg explores the history of this Pennsylvania city in the first several decades of the twentieth century.

I am probably too old to learn new tricks.  Any kind of future work I do in digital history will require partners who can help with the “digital” and technological work.

I have constructed my comments today with the membership of the American Society of Church History in mind. If you are an experienced DHer, most of what I have to say will not be new.  After attending ASCH conferences for close to twenty years, I think I am safe in saying that the members of this organization are rather conservative and traditional when it comes to innovative approaches to scholarship.  On the other hand, you have decided to attend an ASCH session on digital history.  This means that you may be curious about the subject.  Hopefully this session will inspire you to, at the very least, stick your scholarly toe in the digital history water.

Some themes from the three papers:

American religious historians should see digital history as a form of public history and community engagement.

  • Digital history is a rapidly growing field with a energetic community of practitioners.  The DH community has interfaced with the vibrant field of public history.  American religious history is a very hot field right now, but there is little conversation taking place between American religious historians and digital/public historians.
  • Digital history can be a form of service to the community.  DHers are public intellectuals. Kyle Roberts’s work is contributing to the Catholic identity of Loyola.  Chris Cantwell’s work has the potential of providing the Chicago religious community with a more historically-informed understanding of contemporary pluralism.  Erin Bartam’s database of religious converts has the potential of reaching religious people who might be interested in the stories of converts as a form of spiritual inspiration.


  • These papers also show quite clearly that digital historians work collaboratively. Faculty work with students.  Faculty work with scholars outside of their departments, including librarians, archivists and IT staff.  Scholars often collaborate with professors at other institutions.  Kyle Roberts has brought together different constituencies across the Loyola campus.  Erin Bartram’s database of converts is designed to cultivate a scholarly community interested in the history of religious conversion.  In fact, the database itself stems from collaborative efforts with Lincoln Mullen of George Mason University.
  • Traditional historians are not used to working this way.  We gain credit and accolades for individual work.  As Erin Bartram notes in her paper, scholars are not used to sharing their archival findings.


  • Question for panelists:  To what extent do you use these projects in your own pedagogy?  How do they enhance or strengthen the content of the American religious survey?
  • Opporunities for extra-curricular teaching abound. Kyle Roberts’s Jesuit Libraries Project employs student interns.  At Messiah College, the Digital Harrisburg project has energized students.

    Personal Research

  • How has working on these DH projects influenced your personal research?  I see three models here:.  In the case of Kyle Roberts, the Jesuit Libraries Project is not connected in any way with his scholarly work on evangelicals in early New York.  Erin Bartram’s converts database is directly related to her dissertation work.  Christopher Cantwell’s Chicago pluralism project illuminates the larger context of his dissertation work on religious utopian communities in Chicago.
  • How have these digital projects helped you think about your current and future scholarly agendas?

    How might digital history reshape the field of American religious history?

  • We have not even scratched the surface of the ways GIS mapping can enhance the field of American religious history.  This kind of mapping makes books like Edwin Gaustad’s Atlas of Religion in America  look like a dinosaur.  Thanks to Christopher’s work, religious pluralism in late 19th-century America is no longer an abstract idea.  Chicago’s historic pluralism can now be visualized.
  • While digital religion projects can be global or national in scope, it is more practical, especially in terms of teaching and service to the community, if they are local in nature.  Would a digital turn in American religious history coincide with a renewed emphasis on local or micro-history? Kyle Roberts’s project stems from a university archive.  Chris Cantwell’s project focuses on one city. Erin Bartram’s project focuses on one particular kind of religious person.  (And it has a certain New England flavor).   In other words, all of these projects are manageable. What does all of this mean in light of recent conversations about so-called “big history.

Let me close with an exhortation.  If these digital projects have peaked your interest, perhaps you are ready to start a small project of your own. Take the archivist at your institution out for a cup coffee to discuss the stuff in special collections. Find someone in IT who might have an interest in a small digital project.  Attend a THAT Camp.  Learn some basic digital tools.

I think you might be surprised at the sources that are right in front of you. At my college—a school affiliated with the Brethren in Christ Church–we have a very rich denominational and college archive.  Several nearby county historical societies have religious records.  The state archives are just down the road in Harrisburg.  The records of the Diocese of Harrisburg are also available.  And you will be surprised how many religious congregations house their own records.

Does a digital project sound too ambitious?  Then consider incorporating a digital assignment into one of your traditional courses.

It is time that the American religious historians start embracing digital history.  Our panelists today are paving the way. DH can enhance our teaching, serve our communities, and give us a greater understanding of our field.